I bet you think graffiti is generally something reserved for the youth, right? Well, if you look around New York City, you’d quickly find that you are, in fact, wrong. New York is home to America’s aging graffiti population with the old school heroes of the scene bringing forth their trade learnt back in the ’70s and ’80s. These latchkey kids first appeared spraying their names across the walls of Manhattan or ‘train bombed’ subway trains. Now, these guys are still out in the street “doing their thing,” even as they approach middle age.
So, the question must then be asked: what is it about this illegal pastime that makes it so hard to stop? For some, the adrenaline of this amusement is to blame, so says one artist. Graffiti legend ZEPHYR, born Andrew Witten, (51) made his name in the early days of spraying subway trains and freights. He recently revealed that the crawling under fences, squeezing through barbwire and, in some cases, being shot at by police were all small prices to pay for people seeing your work—like some sort of addicting drug. Even art legend Keith Haring can be linked to this as his love for public art display was imperative in his image throughout the street.
But surely this adrenaline of doing something illegal cannot be the only reason these pioneers continue to risk their lively hoods. One aging NYC graffiti artist Angel “LA 2” Ortiz (45), a personal favorite, whose piece in a Lower East Side schoolyard is simply stunning, seems to agree. Just this year, Ortiz spent 41 days of a 50-day sentence in the Rikers Island after being caught spray painting, and though his name (and tag) have been absent for some time, it was a saddening story that brought him out of his 14 year hiatus.
Ortiz has seen it all. From its early beginnings, he rode the wave of graffiti right through its counterculture days of the ’80s. He recalls times spent partying with legends like Andy Warhol and Madonna. He even goes through his memories of artists like Keith Haring and how he turned up at Ortiz’s house asking about his tagging style. But it was not until the recent death of his girlfriend that brought him out of “retirement.”
But now we must ask: what has changed? Where did this original street style go? Graffiti documentarian Henry Chalfant believes that the scene has now lost its revolutionary edge since, as a population, we have moved on and found other ways to protest. Chalfant explains that the most significant change was the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s taking over of the transport system, marking the beginning of the end. The MTA put in place spray resistant trains and this coupled with the police cracking down on “vandalism.”
Though graffiti will never die, its hay days of the ’80s have come and gone. But for the few remaining artists willing to take their freedom into danger, something still remains. “LA 2” spends his days trying to get his work recognised by some of the galleries, and Witten teaches art at his daughter’s school. These guys are not gone, but merely forgotten and maybe it’s time for them to resurge onto the scene and spark a sort of new crew of taggers.
—Ryan Holmes, an Englishman in New York.